News Story

U.S. Supreme Court Accepts Case to Give 'Right-to-Work' to All Public Employees

Court could end compulsory union 'agency fee' payments for government workers

On the final day of its most recent session, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will consider a labor law case that experts say could dramatically limit the power of government employee unions.

Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association was brought on behalf of 10 California public school teachers who sued for the right to leave their union and not still pay "agency fees." If the Supreme Court rules in their favor, it could have the same effect as extending right-to-work law protections to all public employees by invalidating the involuntary extraction of agency fees from worker paychecks. Previous decisions have recognized workers' right to not have union dues extracted, but agency fees are still allowed. These fees are typically 80 percent of the full dues payments.

Michigan's Mackinac Center Legal Foundation is among the organizations that filed an amicus brief in favor of the teachers.

“The significance of Friedrichs cannot be understated,” said F. Vincent Vernuccio, the director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “If the Supreme Court sides with the California teachers it could mean right-to-work for public employees across the country, protected by the First Amendment. Government unions in the remaining 25 states which allow unions to get workers fired for not paying them could no longer force public employees to support an organization they disagree with.”

Unions argue that without compulsory dues or fees, many workers will enjoy the benefits of union representation without paying for it. This is among complaints made by the Michigan Education Association against the right-to-work law enacted in Michigan in 2012. Union officials have used the term “freeloaders” to describe employees who stop paying dues or fees under right-to-work but don't want to be excluded from being covered under MEA contracts.

In 2013, Sen. Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, asked MEA spokesman Doug Pratt about this.

"Sometimes I've heard of people who want to leave the union [described as] as 'freeloader'," Meekhof said. "Is there contention by the MEA that you would wish to be relieved of representing those people who want to opt out of the union?"

Pratt answered, "No."

Lee Adler, who teaches public sector collective bargaining and labor law at Cornell University, pointed to the Supreme Court’s Harris vs. Quinn ruling in 2014. The Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that it was a violation of the First Amendment to allow unions to deduct fees from nonunion members.

“It is not often that the Court so quickly revisits an issue such as deduction of union dues from a worker’s pay, but they have done so here,” Adler said in an email. “It may mean that they wish to extend the Harris ruling which allowed workers to not pay partial union dues, or agency fee dues, to full-fledged teacher-employees. Such a ruling would financially harm public sector unions, America’s strongest unions. It would also be contrary to observations about the history of labor law in the U.S. made at oral argument by Justice Scalia and run counter to a decades-long consensus (and precedents) on the national balance crafted by the Court which shapes labor relations and dues paying in both sectors for employees and their unions.”

“Given the reasoning in Justice Alito’s Harris ruling and the Court’s own long-standing precedents, it will be very difficult for Justice Alito to get the five votes necessary for the Court to extend its view that dues paying by full-fledged union members (as opposed to the ‘provisional,' nonstate employees covered by the Harris decision) is constitutionally coercive and thus invalid.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.